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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-12-12
- Reviewer: Staff
A young student surpasses her troubled mentor, unleashing much wrath, in Julavits’s wry, witty new novel (after The Uses of Enchantment). Julia Severn is a mediocre student at New Hampshire’s Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, which is no Hogwarts. Frauds mix with the rare mystic, and students attempt—mostly in vain—to telepathically petrify hunks of pork. Enigmatic psychic diva Madame Ackermann handpicks Julia to be her stenographer, spreading jealousy until Madame feels threatened by Julia and morphs from harmless dingbat into sinister sociopath, ousting the student and debilitating her abilities. Relocated to New York, Julia finds work that is so odd it’s often mistaken for performance art. As she begins to recover her abilities, she meets the mysterious Alwyn and finds her fortune deeply intertwined with a missing feminist French filmmaker who may hold insight about her dead mother. Julia comes to discover much about herself, the world, and her formidable former mentor. Packed with a revolving cast of faces, the story frequently switches into the past, especially at the outset, which can create confusion. But the overall effect is magical, and Julavits’s often acerbic prose generates laughs despite the sad reality of Julia’s life. Agent: Henry Dunow, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (Mar.)
A metaphysical mystery
Imagine you had the power to make streetlights dim when you walked beneath them and could probe the innermost secrets of the human mind. This is what life is like for Julia Severn, a young psychic whose mother committed suicide when she was just an infant. Though Julia’s powers are impressive, all attempts to contact her mother beyond the grave have been unsuccessful. Instead, Julia latches onto her mentor, Madame Ackerman, as an interim mother. Alas, Madame Ackerman’s powers are waning and in a fit of jealousy, she metes out a devastating psychic punishment that cripples Julia and sends her on the run. Despite her resolve to lead a normal life, Julia finds herself fighting to regain her health and her mystical gifts so that she can assist in the search for a provocative and elusive artist who just happens to have known her mother. What results is a sinister game of cosmic hide-and-seek in which Julia will be forced to confront her most deadly and dogged pursuer: her own grief.
Heidi Julavits' fourth novel is bold and brazen, but it is also one hell of a headtrip.
In case the above synopsis does not make it abundantly clear, Heidi Julavits’ fourth novel, The Vanishers, is bold and brazen, but it is also one hell of a headtrip. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to liken it to the mind-bending movies of David Lynch, for this is truly a puzzle wrapped in pages. The plot is serpentine and surreal, facts are fluid and nothing is out of bounds; one must be on perpetual guard, as not even Julia can be trusted in this tale where nothing is as it seems.
Some readers will certainly balk at the unconventional narrative leaps that Julavits asks them to take, but to do so would be a mistake. More than a metaphysical mystery, at its core The Vanishers is a stunningly candid examination of the dark side of grief, female rivalries and the critical bond between mothers and daughters. Countless books have already been written on these topics, but by straddling the line between the otherworldly and harsh reality, Julavits manages to take mainstream notions and transform them into something truly unique.